What was I thinking? Rick thought before landing each cautious step. The beam proved sturdy enough for his two-hundred pound stature. The narrow width is what struck fear into his already shaken frame. Don’t look down. Look straight ahead, his mind echoed.
For the fourth time in the last minute, he cinched the rope securing his shoulder harness; as if the clamps could somehow magically release themselves. “Hang on Ekkehard!” he shouted. “I’m almost there!”
Seconds earlier, Stephen Ekkehard lost his footing and tripped over his own safety strap. The strap was losing its grip, but held his dangling body six hundred feet above the ground.
Rick lost traction, but quickly regained his footing. The rapid, steady rhythm of Rick’s heartbeat seemed to stop. He was in a race against time to rescue his friend while battling his lifelong fear of heights.
Rick Kamden’s destiny was foretold years before his conception. His father was a third generation homebuilder, by trade. That left little doubt for his future.
His grandfather, Joe Kamden Sr. and his father Joe Jr. built a small residential renovation and construction business in their tight-knit community of Jackson, Missouri.
From the age of six, Rick shadowed both Grandpa Joe and Joe Jr. from one jobsite to the next. His job was to collect all loose nails and keep the guys’ water canteens filled. A lot of responsibility for a man of six, but he loved it.
Each summer, Rick woke at the crack of dawn. Most mornings, he was the one in the barn waking the rooster while other kids slept till noon. The crisp, clean morning air seemed to cleanse his soul. By the age of ten, two cups of coffee before sunrise was a necessity.
Decked out in an old t-shirt, bib overalls and steel-toed work boots, he met each morning with excited anticipation. Most kids thought he was downright nuts to be so darn cheerful in the morning, but it was in his blood and he loved it.
It was the summer of Rick’s tenth year; 1996. He’d grown to be a strapping young man for his age. Long hours of carrying timbers, setting studded walls and forming foundations sculpted his muscular physique. Other kids spent their summer at football camp or at the pool, but those activities didn’t appeal him.
One morning, Rick & Joe Jr. stood on the front porch. Two years earlier, he and Rick built that porch, and the house attached to it, from the ground up. Joe Jr. was a large man, with bulging biceps. Rick was a chip off the old block. Joe Jr. cut the sleeves off every T-shirt he owned. “To even out my tan,” he would say.
Joe propped his foot on an old patio chair. “Man, these shoes are getting old.” he complained, tilting his foot sideways to reveal the sole. He grabbed the toe-end of the sole, pulling it away from the boot. “Look at that!” he proclaimed in disgust. “I just bought these a year ago and the dang thing’s already coming apart.”
Rick laughed. “Where’re we working today, Pop?”
Joe knotted his bootlace then grabbed the loose strap of his bib overalls, pulling it over his shoulder and snapping it into place. “We’re roofing the Anderson place down on Mill Road.” He replied knowing full well, Rick’s fear of heights. You gonna to be alright up there today?”
Worry lines adorned Rick’s forehead, resembling the folds of a Japanese paper fan. That’s the big two-story house isn’t it?” he asked.
Joe drew a sip of his coffee. “That’s right son, you up for it?
Rick stared off into the distance, pondering a courageous response to an otherwise terrifying question. “How steep is the roof?”
“Ten inch pitch.” he answered. It’ll be a challenge, but I think you can handle it. Grab your tool belt and I’ll meet you in the truck. They’re forecasting a hot one today, so we need to get an early start.”
Ten inch pitch? He thought. That’s like a thirty degree angle. I could slide right off that thing and not stop till I hit ground.
Joe sensed his concern and wrapped his hand around the back of Rick’s neck. “Just remember son, fear can get you killed in this job. Stay alert, stay focused and you’ll do just fine.”
Rick admired his father and knew, one day, he’d follow in his footsteps. Showing signs of fear meant Dad would leave him behind to tend to Woman’s Work. “Alright,” he whispered as he turned toward the door. “I’ll meet you at the truck.”
Rick’s mother, Effie Kamden stood silent in the doorway. Wearing her long flannel nightgown and holding a cooler of food and drinks, she faced him with a sympathetic grin. “What’s wrong, Baby? Is everything okay?”
“Fine, Mom,” he replied with a crooked smile. I’ll see you this afternoon. He grabbed his tool belt from the wooden hall tree and grabbed the cooler from Effie. He stole a quick hug before he racing out the door.
Moments later, they arrived at the jobsite. Rick felt uneasy as his anxiety mounted. He fixed an intense gaze at the towering roof and the steepness of its pitch. He’d never admit it, but he was terrified. Joe’s words echoed in his mind, fear can get you killed in this job. Stay alert and stay focused.
Grandpa Joe Kamden Sr. appeared from inside the house and walked toward the truck to greet them. He too was wearing his signature, bib overalls and t-shirt; minus the sleeves. It was obvious where Joe Jr. got the no sleeves idea. After a quick greeting, Grandpa and Dad peered up at the roof, then spoke briefly before turning toward the truck. Two forklifts, each holding a pallet of roofing shingles, sat silent on opposite sides of the house.
Grandpa Joe walked over and wrapped his arm around Rick’s neck. “Alright, young man, here’s your moment of truth.” he said. “Don’t worry, there’s nothing to it. We’ll strap a harness to you and there’ll be someone behind you nailing down two-by-fours to steady yourself.”
Rick watched as Dad fed his arms through a small vest adorned with a strap. Grandpa reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a similar vest. “Here you go, kiddo.” He said handing the vest to Rick. “This one’s yours. Be sure to cinch it up good and tight so you don’t slide out of it.”
That’s reassuring! Rick thought. There’s a chance I could slide out of this thing?
With their vests secured, the men walked toward the house. A third forklift, equipped with an empty pallet, pulled up beside them. Joe Jr. held an air-powered nail gun in each hand; one for each of them. “Here you go son, be careful.”
They reached the base of the roof. A single layer of black tar paper draped a layer of sturdy plywood. “It’s no different than the other roofs you’ve done,” Joe said, “Just a little steeper and a higher, that’s all.”
Ropes lay across the roof, each with a metal clip attached to the end. Joe reached down, grabbed a rope and clipped it to Rick’s vest. He then grabbed another and clipped it to his own.
“Dammit!” Joe shouted as he held the strap which just tore loose from the outer lining.
“What’s wrong, son?” Grandpa Joe yelled from below.
“The stupid strap broke.” he replied.
“You want me to find another one? Grandpa asked.
“No,” Joe Jr. replied. “I’ll be alright.”
“Safety first, Son,” Grandpa Joe replied.
Joe Jr. waved his hand toward Grandpa. I’ll be fine, Dad.” Joe made his way toward the back of the house while Rick moved with hesitation, toward the front. One-at-a-time, Rick began nailing shingles. His experience taught him to begin a rhythmic pace that’ll ease the fear of heights from his mind.
The sun soon rose above the trees and onto their backs. The forecast called for ninety-five degrees and the humidity would rapidly raise the heat index up above a hundred.
As the morning progressed, Rick edged closer to the peak. His father continued a steady pace on the opposite side. After each layer, a co-worker would secure a two-by-four just below them, a foothold similar so the rung of a ladder.
Joe Jr. worked the backside of the house since the basement was exposed giving a full three story rise from the ground to the base of the roof. Knowing Rick’s fear of heights, Joe knew that the two stories in front were more than enough for him to handle.
Rick reached the top and peered over the peek, onto the backside. It was then that he witnessed the height Dad was actually working.
“Dad!” Rick called.
Joe looked up, “What you need, son?”
“Dad, you’re not strapped in, and you’re three stories up, what are you thinking?”
“I’m alright, Son.” he replied while using his forearm to wipe the sweat from his brow. “We’re almost done.”
Joe stood to take a step. The loose sole, on the bottom of his shoe, buckled and he lost his footing. He dropped the nail gun and began to slide. Rick watched in horror as the speed of his slide increased, “Dad, hold on!” he screamed dropped his nail gun, holding tight to the top edge of the roof. Joe slid down the entire length of the roof, then out of Rick’s sight.
“No!” Rick cried.
Inside the home, the crew was taking a break. Joe slid off the roof and fell thirty feet, head-first onto a concrete block retaining wall. Workers heard the commotion and ran outside. Joe lay, face-down in a pool of his own blood.
Joe Sr. ran to his son’s aide and knelt down beside him. He rolled him over to reveal his bloody, mangled face. Grandpa grabbed Joe Jr’s wrist to search for a pulse. Rick slid down from his perch and jumped from the two-story ledge onto a pile of sand. His only thought was of his Dad, and whether or not, he survived the fall.
He rushed to the back of the house. Joe’s head rested in Grandpa’s lap. Ten fellow workers surrounded them. He pushed his way through and knelt down next to his Grandfather. Tears welled up in Grandpa’s eyes. He held a blank stare towards his son’s lifeless body. Rick grabbed his father’s hand; it was still warm. “He’s gone, Son.” Grandpa whispered.
“Someone call an ambulance!” Rick shouted.
Duke, the foreman, was a step ahead of him. “I already called them.” Duke answered. “They’re on their way.”
Rick turned his attention to Grandpa Joe, who was weeping uncontrollably. “It’s too late.” Grandpa replied. “His injuries are too severe. He’s gone, Son. There’s nothing we can do.”
Joe Jr. was buried three days later. It was a hot summer July. Rick and his mother, Effie lived out the next eight years together in the same Jackson, Missouri home that he and Joe Jr built ten years earlier. Grandpa Joe did his best to keep the construction business afloat during those years, but his increasing age and the enormous grief over the loss of his only son, made it difficult to continue. Rick spent weekends, holidays and summer vacations helping Grandpa keep the business going.
Grandpa Joe passed away in the summer of 2003. He was found lying on a blanket near Joe Jr’s gravesite. The coroner’s report read, natural causes, but Rick was convinced he died of a broken heart.
As busy as he was, during his teenage years, he befriended plenty of girls, but only one stole his heart and truly understood his commitment to the family business. He and Amy Radek dated for two years before graduated high school together.
Rick and Amy married and bought a small lot next to his mother, Effie; who gave them room and board during construction. The house was completed exactly one year to the day after the first nail was struck. Amy had the patience of Job, allowing Rick to complete every meticulous detail himself.
Rick sustained their construction business another ten years until the housing market crash forced them to shut down.
A contractor friend of Rick’s, Stephen Ekkehard, also lost his family’s construction business and was looking for work.
“I heard, on the radio that there’s big money to be made in high-rise construction.” Stephen said.
“I need to do something,” Rick said. “But, man I hate heights.”
“Well,” Stephen replied, “You can always flip burgers at McDonalds.”
“Construction’s all I’ve ever known,” Rick said. Amy and I are talking about having kids, but there’s no way I could support a family on minimum wage.”
“Come on, Man, Stephen said, “What’ve you got to lose. We’re both young and nothing’s keeping us here.”
“I worry about my Mom.” Rick replied.
“I know your mom, Rick.” Stephen urged. “She wants you to be happy.”
Regardless of his fear of heights, he knew he had a growing family to support. He also knew that every objection to Stephen’s idea was another excuse to avoid the inevitable. He was thirty-two years old and he wasn’t getting any younger.
In the fall of 2010, He followed Stephen’s advice and moved his family to St. Louis. Mother Effie agreed that there was nothing keeping her tied down, so she too sold the family home and bought a house next to Rick and Amy. Stephen and Rick found a job building high-rise office buildings and everything seemed to be going great, at least for a few months.radio strap
“Don’t make any sudden moves!” Rick said. “I’m almost there, stay calm!”
“I don’t want to die, Kamden!” Stephen screamed. “Help me out here, buddy.”
Rick’s mind began to cloud with images of his Father’s death. He hesitated for a moment, then made his way to the end of the beam. He wrapped his arms around the pole that secured Stephen’s harness strap. Stephen’s sudden movements forced his strap to rub against the edge of the beam, cutting the strap like a knife.
“Stop moving!” Rick cried.
Two co-workers arrived to assist. The men pulled Stephen to the safety and led him to a service elevator that lowered him down to solid ground.
Rick stayed behind to remove the damaged strap. Upon investigation, the strap was less than an inch away from breaking loose from the clamp. He would later, inform Stephen how lucky he was. Rick sat on the beam, grabbed his own harness, and stared down at his friend lying on a stretcher, six-hundred feet away. Stephen shaded his eyes from the sun and looked up. Each raised a hand to wave at the other. Rick no longer feared heights, but rather learned to respect the force of gravity.